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David Baldacci on Opening Chapters
Your first chapter is arguably the most important of your entire book. A great first chapter will hook a reader, while a bad one will repel them. When writing that crucial first chapter, David Baldacci encourages you to ask yourself: “What is my big pop?” The big pop is how the novel is going to open. If you don’t get that right, it doesn’t matter what else you write after that, because nobody is going to finish reading it. Whether it’s a big event or the implication of an exciting event to come, something interesting has to happen—this is what David calls the big pop.
5 Tips for Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel
Traditionally, novels open by laying out their major dramatic question. It’s imperative to capture a reader’s attention by raising a question that they want answered. You can open a story with a big event or you can build anticipation toward that event, but it’s important that you keep a few basic tenets in mind. Here are some things to remember about your opening chapter:
- Shake up the status quo. The events should be out of the ordinary for your character.
- Provide sufficient context. Your reader should feel grounded and able to understand what’s happening. They may not know everything, but they have to know enough to comprehend the situation.
- Avoid confusion. You can mislead your reader, but don’t confuse them. Nothing will make a reader put a book down faster than feeling lost.
- Stay flexible. Your first chapter may be subject to change or refinement later, so keep coming back to it throughout the writing of the book.
- Reign yourself in. Keep the writing and storytelling tight: Everything on the page should be there for a reason.
5 Tips for Writing Compelling Chapters
You know when you’re reading a great book and can’t put it down no matter how late it gets or how tired you are? That’s the result of momentum, or the sense that you can’t wait to see what happens next. Momentum is generally created when you answer questions your readers are curious to know, then create even bigger questions to replace the previous ones. Author David Baldacci is a master of this technique, crafting narratives that keep readers on the edge of their seats from cover to cover. You can control and sustain momentum in your own writing with some of his basic tools:
- Keep scenes and chapters short. Each chapter contains information that either answers a previous question you raised for the reader or introduces a new one. A classic example from crime fiction: “Will this serial killer strike again?” becomes “He struck again—now how many more people will he kill?” David Baldacci keeps his chapters short—between three to five pages.
- Have one scene accomplish multiple things. David introduces John Puller in Zero Day (2011) by showing him moving through a security checkpoint, and he manages to reveal an awful lot in a short space: that Puller’s father was renowned, that Puller was injured in combat, and that he’s a blunt conversationalist and potentially a stickler for protocol and detail. When you’ve got a chapter that’s three or four pages long, you have to hit your mark with every word.
- Keep it lean. Make sure each chapter has a purpose that ties in to the bigger story. Don’t fluff up the novel with irrelevant content. Establish trust with your reader that you will not waste their time with authorial indulgences. As David explains: “My mantra is: When you read one of my books, do not skim, because every word in there, every line that I write, every paragraph that’s in the book means something.”
- Continue to raise new questions for the reader. Make sure your new questions are bigger and more important than the previous ones.
- Plan your narrative, and stick with the plan. In a thriller, people want to be on the edge of their seat the whole time, and this requires narrative focus. Don’t meander too far from your main storyline—that is, from scenes and dialogue that develop your stakes. In order to keep your chapters short and focused, you may need to compress them.
4 Strategies for Editing Your Own Thriller or Mystery Novel
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In his MasterClass, bestselling thriller author David Baldacci teaches you how he fuses mystery and suspense to create pulse-pounding action.View Class
If you’re already in the process of writing a thriller or mystery novel and want to do an editing pass on individual chapters, here are four strategies for doing so:
- Rewrite your opening chapter. Take a look at the opening chapter of your book in its current form. Does it have a big pop—i.e. a startling event that entices the reader? If you don’t want to alter your first chapter but nonetheless need to insert a big pop, create a prologue. Think big here. Your first chapter is almost more important than your last.
- Write out your goals. Pull five scenes at random from your novel-in-progress, and answer this question for each one: What are my goals for this scene? Make a list of goals for each one. These goals can be major or minor—for example, introducing a sidekick or learning a detail about your protagonist’s past. Now try to add one more goal to each list so that each of your scenes is multitasking. Not every scene has to have a dual purpose, but most of them will.
- Open in the middle of a scene. Take a chapter you just wrote, and start at the most important moment. Cut out everything that came before that, and, if you need to keep any information from your cuts, weave them into the more exciting part of the scene.
- Compress, compress, compress. Go through your writing and see how many words you can cut while keeping the original feel of your work. (Hint: adverbs—words like gently or beautifully that usually end in “-ly” and modify verbs or adjectives—are a good place to start.) Next, beware of places where you’ve given too much description, especially of a static object. Do you need to spend two whole paragraphs describing a building that’s not essential to the plot? One powerful detail will often do the trick. Finally, compress your dialogue. Making people seem real on the page often means giving them shorter sentences. Most people are naturally economical speakers and will tend to say “I’ll go” instead of “Yes, I will go.”
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